Friday, May 23, 2008

A Metaphor for Life

I always tell my students that when they can’t figure out what a piece of literature is about that they can be safe in assuming that it is a metaphor for life. I am being mostly facetious when I tell them this. The truth, of course, is far more complicated than that, but, like most hyperbole, there is an element of truth to it.

I risk sounding pedantic here, but all literature, even the worst rot, the lowest form of written text that barely can lay claim to the title, has some reflection of life within it. The most made up piece of science fiction, the most romantic flower of other worldly fantasy contains the seeds of reality from which the story, the character, the conflict stems. That is a simple fact of the product. It’s all based on something, be it imagination or memoir (which, as we know contains not a small amount of imagination). The root of the story comes from reality.

I am working on a script. Working, in the sense that I have about 45 pages that I have let lie fallow for nearly a year. I return to it from time to time. I read it over. I smile with pride at this passage, I cringe with disgust at that. I haven’t made a change to it since I paused on page 45. The main character, whose travails thus far are loosely based on my own and other folks’ lives, has just suffered a major calamity. A freak accident has left him paralyzed in the midst of a romantic crisis. I don’t know what will happen. However, at one point, I did know.

Before I put one word on the page, I sat down and outlined the whole story. I mapped out each of the three acts. I knew how the hero would start out, I knew what conflicts he would endure, and I knew how each conflict would be resolved. It wasn’t the outline of a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but, it seemed a story worth telling. It was a new way for me to start a writing task.

I have never been good at planning. Since my earliest years, I have been the sort of person who simply rode the currents of life. Sometimes those currents rushed me down the rapids of days, roaring and splashing in white water, bouncing, usually harmlessly, off of rocks and roiling swirls. Sometimes those currents were waves, lifting me up on their faces, carrying me at awesome speeds toward the shore, and, more often than not, depositing me with a momentous crash on the sand. And sometimes, well, most times, those currents eddied and curled near the bank of the river of my existence, taking me nowhere at all for long periods. I rarely made much effort to paddle out of these slipstreams. That was just fine with me.

Maps had no use to me. Itineraries were unwanted. Lists and calendars I avoided like they were ancient curses, or some other bad magic. A monkey’s paw or a hand of glory. I didn’t outline my papers in school. I didn’t plan my route on road trips. I didn’t study the potential consequences of my actions to determine the best course for me to take. I simply stepped out, put one foot in front of the other, and wandered the path. It was easy in the short run, but, and I’ll be the first to admit this, in the long run, it probably caused more trouble than not. But, that’s how I operated.

If I did make lists, if I did plan or prepare, I usually discovered one of two things: either my list was misplaced in the other detritus of my desk, backpack, notebook, or wallet (and, sometimes, among the refuse piled up on the long unseen floor of my car), or all my preparations were knocked a kilter by one or a hundred mammoth or miniscule unanticipated events. So, I learned to trust my innate lack of desire for planning.

The outline for my script? It has gone the way of numerous lists and itineraries. Lost. Be it somewhere in the recycling bin or somewhere in a drawer not very far from this computer, I cannot find it. And so, the hero of my script, he whose life is not completely unlike my own in several intentional details, is cast adrift. Crumpled in the wreckage of a 1987 Honda Civic, somewhere aside I-95, between Savage, MD, and Washington, DC, his unfinished life hangs in the balance. He could recover, resolve his romantic difficulties, and live most happily. Or, fate, in the guise of my imagination, may have something slightly or grandly more tragic in store for him. It will not be known until it is known, for the outline of his story is lost. He has no plan to follow. His has no list to tick off. He has no choice but to follow the arc of his story until some resolution is reached. He has no plan, because I have no plan.

And so, I wonder, should I tell my students that literature is an imitation of life, or that life is an imitation literature?

1 comment:

La Fashionista said...

Greetings from Ann Arbor, MI! It's a pretty nice college town, and I'm especially loving the lilacs in bloom and the endless days (due to being so far north and so far west in the eastern time zone). I'm here for a conference and will be returning to DC - in all its Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally madness - later today. Ah, what's Memorial Day weekend without being surrounded by tens of thousands of motorcyclists? There's also some kind of crazy air show(s) happening (of course), but I keep forgetting to get the link to share with you.

But enough about me. I am intrigued by your winding path and often wish that I have lived with enough courage to be nonlinear and not so focused on producing a certain outcome. I'd welcome reading your developing script if you ever want to share it.

As for your question posed about literature imitating art or vice versa, I think you should pose this question to your students and let them reflect/write on it. I don't know that they've lived long enough to get it fully, but posing the question to them is perhaps valuable.

May you always ponder meaning in your life, and maybe catch an air show in LiNE for the holiday weekend!